Thursday, January 3, 2013

Children's Literature: 19th Century Illustration

Three British illustrators, all born at the same time, dominated 19th century children's literature: Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, and Walter Crane.  I thought it would be fun to learn a bit about them.

Randolph Caldecott (1846 - 1886) was a prolific artist with a wide range.  Most of his work was in illustration, but he also did a lot else and was exhibited at the Royal Academy.  He was born in Chester to a large middle-class family (he was the third of his father's 13 children).  He loved the outdoors and especially horses, which comes out in his illustrations--you'll notice plenty of horses!  As a young man he worked in a bank and attended art classes at night, but he soon found that he could actually support himself with his artistic talent and moved to London.  There he became a successful magazine illustrator.

Caldecott did not start producing children's illustrations until 1877, but after that he was very prolific.  He published two picture books every Christmas and did countless other illustrations, quickly becoming internationally famous.  He continued this level of productivity despite chronic ill health and frequent travel in attempts to improve it.  Sadly, he was not even 40 when he died during a trip to the United States. 

One of a set of postcards with nursery rhyme pictures

In 1938, the American Library Association started awarding the Caldecott Medal to the picture book chosen as the best of the year.  Caldecott's enduring influence on children's literature makes his name an appropriate honor.  Though few know his work now, if you look at his artwork the style will probably be familiar because it is so classic.

You can see Caldecott's work at the Randolph Caldecott Society UK's comprehensive webpage, or at the excellent collection at the Internet Archive.

Kate Greenaway (1846 – 1901) started working as an artist as soon as she became an adult.  She was from Nottinghamshire and had a rather lonely childhood.  She then attended art school and started a career in children's book illustration.  Greenaway's upbringing and love of nature was reflected in her art, especially in her renderings of clothing.  Her mother was a seamstress who owned a clothing store, and Greenaway  always paid a lot of attention to fashion.  She showed children in imaginative versions of the clothing styles of a century before; boys were in skeleton suits, girls in empire dresses with sashes.  These styles became popular as the illustrations did, and mothers interested in the Arts & Crafts movement began to dress their children in imitation.

Greenaway is rather sentimental for modern taste, and while prolific, she did not produce the range and variety that Caldecott did.  She had a niche--sweet portraits of sweet children--and she focused on it.

The Kate Greenaway Medal began to be awarded in 1955 as the British prize for excellence in picture books.

Walter Crane (1845–1915) was the most prolific of all these prolific artists, but then he lived much longer.  He was from Liverpool and became interested in the Pre-Raphaelite movement early on.  Crane followed Ruskin's ideas about art, was heavily involved in the Arts & Crafts movement, and found yet more inspiration in Japanese art.  You can see all this in his work, which is more Art Nouveau in style, and has less realism; he felt that "the artist works freest and best without direct reference to nature, and should have learned the forms he makes use of by heart."

Crane ranged widely and designed tiles, pottery, and textiles--even wallpapers for adults and children.  His nursery wallpapers were based on his illustrations (and look overwhelmingly busy to modern eyes). 

I have a Dover copy of Crane's lovely illustrations for Spenser's Faerie Queene, and I wish very much that I had the whole thing--the poem and the pictures in one volume.  It seems that it's quite difficult to find such a thing these days, and the last time I looked, the only version available cost $400!  However, last night I looked around online, and it is possible to download scans in PDF from  I can't say the idea of reading them on a tablet thrills me, but it's better than nothing, hm? 


amanda @ simplerpastimes said...

How interesting! I came across Caldecott and Greenaway while searching for images for the project,but hadn't heard of Crane. I like his style. It's too bad there's not an affordable version of Faerie Queene with his illustrations available.

Miguel said...

Walter Crane is an extraordinary illustrator; I did not know the other two, but they also strike mas a very good.